Zika virus tied to birth defects

GENEVA/LONDON – The World Health Organization yesterday declared the mosquito-borne Zika virus an international public health emergency because of its link to thousands of birth defects in Brazil, as the UN agency sought to build a global response to the threat.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan told reporters that co-ordinated international action was needed to improve detection and expedite work on a vaccine and better diagnostics for the disease, but said curbs on travel or trade were not necessary.

Ms Chan, whose agency was assailed as too slow in reacting to West Africa’s Ebola epidemic that killed more than 10,000 people in the past two years, cited “first and foremost the big concern about microcephaly,” the birth defect that causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads and improperly developed brains.

She noted that it was “strongly suspected but not yet scientifically proven” that Zika causes microcephaly.

“Can you imagine if we do not do all this work now, and wait until the scientific evidence comes out?” Ms Chan told reporters at the WHO headquarters in Geneva. “Then people will say that, ‘Why don’t you take action because the mosquito is ubiquitous?'”

The emergency designation, recommended by a committee of independent experts following criticism of a hesitant response to Zika so far, should help fast-track international action and research priorities.

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